Going Nowhere Fast
Our traffic is terrible. Will widening the Beltway and I-270 really help?
The Rosh Hashana timing of Hogan’s announcement “was dictated by the governor’s schedule. That was unfortunate,” Rahn concedes. But he strongly takes issue with “the idea that there has been no consultation with the counties or local governments,” citing nearly two decades of letters from Montgomery County to the state listing local transportation priorities. “The idea that doing something about 495 and 270 came out of the blue; I can’t believe anyone with a straight face can say there hasn’t been wishes expressed by local governments for the state to do something about these interstates,” Rahn says.
Indeed, an amendment to the county’s master plan for highways adopted in April 2004 advocated HOV (high occupancy vehicle) or HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes along I-270 and I-495. The HOT lane option is similar to the one contained in the P3 proposal. But county officials are quick to point out that in the master plan amendment, along with subsequent letters to the state, they limited their advocacy of such an approach to I-270 and the portion of I-495 between the so-called “western spur” of I-270 and the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River.
Not included, they add, was the most controversial piece of the plan put forth by Hogan in 2017—to widen the relatively narrow portion of I-495 from Bethesda east through Silver Spring to the junction with I-95. An alternate plan presented by Hucker and other county officials last spring would utilize the Intercounty Connector (ICC) to channel traffic headed to the American Legion Bridge to I-270 and then south to the bridge. But state transportation officials, after agreeing to study the alternative last summer, publicly rejected it in November at a meeting in Rockville with county officials.
“…It added mileage without reducing commute times or easing congestion the way we would have hoped,” Slater told Bethesda Beat afterward.
The trade-off was intended to preempt widening the portion of I-495 through Silver Spring and Bethesda with toll lanes, sparing public and private property along that route. But with traffic volume on the ICC still lagging behind initial expectations despite recent growth, the county proposal to divert vehicles onto the ICC and then down I-270 has prompted questions about the willingness of drivers coming from the north to take a toll road and drive 10 miles longer than staying on I-95 and the Beltway to the American Legion Bridge.
The extra mileage notwithstanding, traffic modeling by the county planning staff has found that it is currently several minutes faster to use the ICC/I-270 alternative during the southbound morning rush, with travel times similar to the I-495/I-95 route during the northbound evening rush. Advocates say the time advantage of the ICC option would increase once I-270 is widened with toll lanes. Under a federally mandated process, the state must decide on a “preferred alternative” route for the I-270/I-495 widening project early next year after weighing both economic and environmental factors.
Intertwined in the state-county jockeying over the future of the Maryland portion of I-495 is a subplot that could be entitled “Whose Beltway Is it Anyway?”
“People who live here think of the Beltway more as a Main Street,” says Rubin, the M-NCPPC official coordinating the county’s response to the widening project. She echoes concerns of other county officials that the toll lanes, in an effort to speed traffic along, will limit options for local drivers: Preliminary plans depict the toll lanes without exits to Wisconsin or Georgia avenues, two major north-south commuter routes. “Most of the impact is being borne by the locals,” Rubin says. “Shouldn’t the locals also get some benefit from it?”
Rahn, in turn, views the Beltway’s function primarily within the context of the interstate highway system. “Interstates are unique from a transportation standpoint; that’s not a local road, and they cannot be limited by just simply a local desire,” he says. “Our job is to respect local residents and to have the least impact on them. But ultimately, as the nation’s capital, we have got to be able to move people from wherever they come from—whether they come from Montgomery County or not.”
To date, this aspect of the debate has been conducted in the absence of detailed data on who uses the Beltway and why. The Maryland Department of Transportation says such information will not be publicly available until early 2020, when a draft environmental impact statement required by federal law is published.
Rahn, who oversaw major highway construction projects as head of the transportation departments in New Mexico and Missouri, doesn’t try to sugarcoat the potential disruptions once construction is underway. At this point, however, few specifics will be clear until an outside firm is chosen to build the toll lanes.
“That will be one of our selection criteria for concessionaires: ‘How are you going to deal with keeping traffic moving while construction is going on?’ ” Rahn says. “On the American Legion Bridge, do you build a parallel bridge to it? There are a lot of options from an engineering standpoint.”
He continues: “But I don’t want to kid anyone. You’re rebuilding in a very tight area. …Part of everyone’s concern is that 270 and 495 are tight. And so we will have to see some innovative approaches to making sure that people can still get around, at least as well as they do today.” With a slight chuckle, he adds, “Now, that’s not saying much.”